by Ian McNulty
Access to locally-produced foods is improving quickly around New Orleans. How quickly? Just ask someone gearing up for this year’s Eat Local Challenge, which asks people who sign up to eat foods produced within a 200-mile radius of New Orleans for the month of June.
“It’s so much easier now than when we started this, and that was just three years ago,” says Lee Stafford, co-founder of the annual event. “We can get more food at the grocery stores and there are more specialty shops for some of the stuff that had been hard to find before, especially meat. The first week is still hard, but once your refrigerator is filled with all local items you’re good to go.”
Stafford and Dr. Leslie Brown, a Covington pediatrician, started the Eat Local Challenge after learning about a similar event in the Midwest. They saw a New Orleans challenge as a way to encourage people to explore the richness of our local foods and connect with local food producers.
While a lot of this comes down to making careful decisions when choosing foods, the Eat Local Challenge has evolved into a month of events, from workshops on making your own wine, sausage or gelato, to a bicycle tour of urban gardens to wild berry foraging excursions over the levee along the batture.
There will be a garden-to-glass cocktail contest on June 17 at the Old New Orleans Rum Distillery for drink recipes using all-local ingredients and on May 31, just before the start of the eat-local month, Rouses Market will host a kick-off party at the rooftop garden of its CBD location at 701 Baronne St., beginning 6 p.m.
“That’s a chance to mingle with people who have done it before and get some of their tips,” says Anne Mueller, an Eat Local Challenge organizer (and reporter for the nonprofit news outlet the Lens).
Mueller completed the challenge last year, and she said the experience was especially valuable for helping her teach her young son what really goes into their meals.
“When we go to the farmers market now we look at it all a bit differently,” she says.
Mueller’s experience also demonstrates that there are different ways to approach the Eat Local Challenge. A self-avowed “addict” to iced coffee and certain New Zealand wines, she says she couldn’t commit completely to the 200-mile radius rule. But that’s fine, because people can sign up for the Eat Local Challenge at different levels of rigor. These include “ultrastrict,” which is just as it sounds; “strict,” which allows for joys like chocolate, coffee and, say, sauvignon blanc grapes; “lenient,” which grants more non-local splurging; and “ultra ultra lenient,” for people who just want to give it a shot for a few days.
Participants don’t have to rely entirely on home cooking either. Some 40 New Orleans restaurants have promised to offer at least one Eat Local Challenge-compliant dish on their menus in June, more than three times the count of last year’s participating restaurants. This year’s class ranges from coffee shops (Avenue Café) to big-deal dinner destinations (August, Commander’s Palace, Root) to casual places for inexpensive eats (Slice, Carmo, Cake Café).
“The restaurants are the celebrities in all of this. They show people what you can do,” says Stafford. “When we approached them, a lot of the chefs said, ‘where’s the challenge? We source this stuff all the time now anyway.’”
Eat Local Challenge registration costs $25 and includes a starter kit with a T-shirt and grocery tote, a 10% discount on locally grown produce at Hollygrove Farm & Market and invitations to official events. Also new this year is a mobile device app with food seasonality guides, recipes, retailer information, farmers market schedules and other resources for eating local.
Register online or at the May 31 kick-off event.